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Prof Hilary Footitt – University of Reading

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  • Crossing boundaries

    Languages in zones of war, conflict and development

Prof Hilary Footitt

In war, conflict and development zones language has a unique and empowering role. Professor Hilary Footitt explains just how vital it is to raise the profile and importance of foreign languages and cultural knowledge in these areas.

HProfessor Hilary Footittilary developed an interest in the role of language in 'contact zones' - in meetings between people of different nationalities, particularly in war and post war situations - when she was researching the liberation of France in 1944/45. She looked at the way Allied troops went into France and their challenges with communication, as they had to deal with communities where English was not spoken.

"That led me to think that this would be particularly interesting in a broader context. I decided to look into what language does in war, and what it does post-war as well when people go in with development programmes or humanitarian aid. It's a way of reimagining these spaces - spaces where multilingualism exists."

the use of English in global contact zones

Hilary highlights the fact that although Development is a very 'Anglophone subject', English is not widely spoken in war, conflict and development zones. "Oxfam deals in 40 countries. These countries aren't Anglophone primarily and Oxfam is dealing with communities. In Peru they're indigenous communities in the Andes and many of them don't speak Spanish - so obviously they don't speak English either."

"It's the excitement of raising questions about languages with people who may not have necessarily thought about this - or wanted to think about this - before."

power and language

Currently, Language issues do not have a high profile within NGOs. However, Hilary believes this will change as language is relevant to the questions these organisations care deeply about: listening to and empowering communities.

"I hope that this research is saying to people who study languages 'what you are doing is very important - it's to do with the way people live today, it's to do with how we get on with one another'."

crossing boundaries in research

Hilary's research feeds into the theme of 'Power and Language'. Whose language is in control? This is a topic she enjoys discussing with students. "If you can give examples from war and development, it can bring the subject alive. It's about students thinking about being in a different situation and trying to help them reimagine how they would be in this situation, what are some of the difficulties, and the role that language plays."

Hilary's research has taken her into war and development areas. She has visited Sandhurst Military Academy, and has crossed boundaries while arguing for the importance of languages.

She worked on the 'Languages at War' project - looking at two case studies in World War II and Bosnia-Herzegovina - and is currently focusing on 'post conflict' communication. She is researching how groups encounter each other in International Development. "We are looking at how language defines how people meet in these development situations. This is particularly interesting because both military studies and international development are what we might describe as 'language silent' disciplines."

Learn more

Hilary works in collaboration with other researchers to explore the role that languages and cultural knowledge play in the policies and practices of development NGOs: The Listening Zones of NGOs: languages and cultural knowledge in development programmes.

‚ÄčFind out more about this project.  



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